Melanie Redman and Stephen Gaetz, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

Portions of this content originally appeared in Parity Magazine, a publication of the Council to Homeless Persons (Australia)

Over the last months we’ve discussed Collective Impact at length here on the Hub. A Way Home as a coalition and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (a founding coalition member) support communities to have the tools they need to develop and implement targeted strategies to prevent and end youth homelessness. We encourage communities to take a Collective Impact approach in this work, which requires working across the systems that drive young people into homelessness, but that can also be part of the solutions. Just a quick refresher – there are five conditions of Collective Impact: Common Agenda, Shared Measurement, Mutually Reinforcing Activities, Continuous Communication and Backbone Organization(s)/Functions. So where do communities get stuck? One of the main challenges is understanding the roles of various forms of data and how to get to shared measurement.

For a long time in Canada, there was little consensus about the role and use of research and data in responding to homelessness. In some quarters there was even deep resistance and hostility to the notion, commonly expressed by the statement: “We don’t need research – we know what the problems and the solutions are.” In recent years, the situation has improved significantly, as those in policy and practice now generally see the value of research and data and researchers have become much more adept at engaging communities in this work.

All of this raises the question of what the role of quality research and data should be in the development and implementation of homelessness policies, programs and services?  What sort of collaborations are necessary to ensure quality and utility, and ultimately to contribute to more effective programs and services?

To support this process, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) is working in collaboration with A Way Home Canada (AWHC) and the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness (NLCYH) to design and implement a vision for a national youth homelessness “Data Dashboard” that will be a resource to support people in communities and all levels of government in their work to prevent and end youth homelessness. The goal of this work is to generate new and useful knowledge that impacts on policy and practice, standard tools and resources to support communities, programs and services in their efforts to get to a place of shared measurement. The values that guide our work include:

  1. We address the problem of youth homelessness from a human rights perspective
  2. All tools and resources must be consistent with a “positive youth development” orientation (focusing not just on risk and vulnerability but also assets)
  3. Young people with lived experience must be meaningfully engaged in the development of these resources
  4. Service providers and government staff have valuable knowledge to contribute to the development of these resources
  5. Data resources must embrace diversity, especially the needs and experiences of Indigenous youth and LGBTQ2S youth
  6. Shared measurement is both effective and central to a Collective Impact approach for community/systems planning
  7. All tools and resources developed are free and open access to help ensure accessibility and wide adoption across the system

On a practical level, our work to support policy making, community planning and program delivery requires us to deepen our understanding of the needs that exist within the youth homelessness sector and government, and to make the case for the benefits of consistent and shared measurement and data collection. To get there, we need to review the strengths and weaknesses of existing tools and resources both within Canada and internationally. We also need to understand the barriers and opportunities for a more coordinated, consistent and shared approach to measurement, program outcomes and data collection, to make the case for why this is important and ensure this vision is communicated clearly.

The Youth Homelessness Data Dashboard consists of four pillars, which work in an integrated way.

four pillars of the data dashboard

1)    Understanding – Research on the causes, conditions and responses to youth homelessness

There is currently a growing knowledge base about the causes and conditions of youth homelessness in Canada and elsewhere in the world. This research can and should have an important contribution to make in terms of conceptual (re)framing of the underlying issues that produce and sustain homelessness, instrumental research that evaluates and assesses programs, policies and strategies, and through the production of solid evidence that frames public debates. If our goal is to engage in research that has an impact on policy and practice, we need to be mindful of the factors that enhance the social impact of research endeavours. What is clear from this scholarship is that research impact is both a process and an outcome of relationship building, collaboration and meaningful processes of interaction between researchers, policy makers, community partners and people facing homelessness. A key example of this kind of work is the recent (and first) national study on youth homelessness, a collaboration between the COH, AWHC and NLCYH. The final report, titled “Without a Home” produced results that have contributed to a national conversation on the role of, and need for homelessness prevention. It has also led to the development of several policy briefs focusing on mental health, child protection (in press) and Indigenous youth (forthcoming). A more ambitious collaborative project we’ve embarked on called the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab involves a series of demonstration projects on prevention interventions as well as the Housing First for Youth framework produced in Canada. Our efforts to develop “proof of concept” for key policy and program models will support taking this knowledge to scale. We will also continue to review the larger research landscape and shine the spotlight on those bodies of work that provide additional insights into the causes, conditions and responses to youth homelessness.

2) Enumeration – Assessing the current situation (scale and scope of the problem)

To end youth homelessness, we must first understand the extent of the problem and then measure the efficacy of our response. Traditionally, youth have been underrepresented in efforts to enumerate homelessness, largely because these efforts are designed to measure unsheltered and sheltered populations. Fortunately, communities across Canada have started to make strides in developing strategies to better measure youth homelessness. Collectively, our next challenge is to continue to align our enumeration methods, regionally and nationally, to develop a baseline of youth homelessness, a point from which we can measure our progress.

Integrated Point-in-Time Counts

In 2018, Canada will embark on a truly national Point-in-Time (PiT) count strategy, with a common methodology (and a youth specific strategy) that has been developed in a partnership between the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Government of Canada.  As mentioned, we are exploring the idea of combining a second round of the National Youth Homelessness Survey with the national PiT count.

In previous PiT counts, there is reason to believe that we are undercounting youth (a comparison to shelter data studies suggests as much). This could be due to the methodological challenges of working with volunteers who may not recognize or prioritize youth in their efforts, concerns about approaching young people, and that youth experiencing homelessness may not frequent places traditionally associated with homelessness. We will use the updated Point-in-Time Count Toolkit to encourage communities to conduct integrated PiT/Youth Counts in 2018. Developing the integrated approach is a process of continuous learning; we expect the methodology to evolve as we learn with and from communities. The integrated methodology, detailed in the toolkit, contains youth count strategies including: magnet events, youth service counts, expanding the definition of homelessness and partnering with youth with lived experience to improve the representation of youth. These new resources can help Community Entities, Service Managers and service providers be more engaged and effective in the PiT Count. In each section of the toolkit, there’s guidance on enumerating youth at the end.

  • A Youth Count Readiness Assessment 
  • module about supporting youth to take leadership roles in the count and/or using the count to initiate youth leadership groups (such as a YLC)
  • module that details how to create a successful youth magnet event, based on the experience of the experience of End Homelessness St. John’s, Choices for Youth and the YLC. 
data tools for shared measurement

Complementary Enumeration Methods

Additional enumeration methods such as Registry Weeks, Period Prevalence Counts (and other sanctioned count methodologies) can be used in combination with PiT Counts to provide more robust data. We will work with our partners and communities to determine the extent to which these methods accurately capture the experiences of youth and contribute to our understanding of the scope of the issue. We will also continue to examine the role of By-Name Lists and efforts to collect “real time” data in our efforts on youth homelessness.

Shelter Study Data

The shelter data remains one of the largest datasets on homelessness in Canada. We will continue to use the shelter data to monitor trends in shelter use among youth and contextualize the data with other sources such as PiT Counts and the National Youth Survey.

Hidden Homelessness

Despite improvements, there are inevitable limitations to our current enumeration methods. PiT Counts, Registry Weeks and Period Prevalence counts cannot accurately enumerate youth who are staying temporarily with friends and family. Accurately measuring hidden homelessness requires a much broader data collection strategy; we will look internationally to identify promising strategies.

3) Data Management Tools and Shared Measurement – Program level resources

Effective data management begins with clarity about organizational goals and objectives – what is the problem one is trying to solve and what are the outcomes we want to see?  As part of our work towards a data management dashboard system, we will be working with community agencies, policy makers and funders to identify and develop key data management tools to support communities to do their work, and to collect relevant data to measure progress and contribute to continuous improvement. No single tool can do all of the work, as there are a number of points of intervention from screening and assessment, to case management, to program and service level indicators.

Assessment Tools – These are key resources to help determine the needs of youth, program eligibility and priority setting. We will be recommending the Youth Assessment Protocol (which includes both a ‘screener’ and a more extensive assessment tool), which unlike others currently being used is strengths-based, evidence informed and relies on the knowledge of both the young person and the worker. This has been field tested in Canada and will be validated and released more broadly in the coming year.

Case Management Tools – Effective case management is best served by an approach to data that focuses on clear program objectives and outcomes which then drive the service delivery model. A positive youth development perspective (focusing on risks and assets) should likewise guide this approach. Strengths-based tools that incorporate a client-driven ‘stages of change’ approach will be supported. Good case management data tools support outcomes measurement at the individual, worker, program and organization level.

Underlying our approach to data management at the program and organization level is shared measurement, which is key to broader social change. Having agencies and services use common assessment, case management and outcomes measures requires not only agreement within the sector but cooperation from funders. All of this works most effectively if there is some form of data sharing agreement and platform. While respecting privacy, data sharing means that young people can be tracked as they move through the system, and that they don’t have to repeat an intensive (and potentially intrusive) intake every time they encounter a service. The benefits here are many. First, it can support the alignment of program philosophies, activities and outcomes across the sector. Second, it can contribute to enhanced collaboration, systems integration and a rethinking of how to collectively respond to the problem of youth homelessness through Collective Impact. Third, and most importantly, it can potentially lead to better outcomes for youth, as they get access to the services that are most appropriate, enables more effective flow through the system, and holds the sector accountable for better outcomes for youth.

4)  Demonstrating Progress: Performance Management supporting the prevention and ending of Youth Homelessness

Preventing and ending youth homelessness requires an integrated systems approach. In order to measure progress and the effectiveness of these systems approaches, performance indicators and milestones at the community, provincial/territorial and national levels. It is important to note that integrated systems work necessarily requires a broad cross-sectoral approach and working with key stakeholders that are outside the traditional homelessness sector. Turner identifies that the goal of such a systems-focused performance management process is to help the local community or government:

• Evaluate system’s impact on priority populations;

• Articulate what the system aims to achieve;

• Illustrate the level of performance expected of all services;

• Facilitate client participation in quality assurance activities at program and system-levels; and

• Promote service integration across sector and with mainstream systems.

(Turner, 2015)

Developing and implementing efficient performance measurement processes begins with a collective understanding of performance measures and targets, and that systems and processes (including data management tools and shared measurement discussed above) be in place and supported.

The key challenges for communities to engage in this important work comes down to resources, training and capacity to collect and manage data and to engage in data analysis and reporting that can contribute to a better understanding of their client base, service level performance, and can lead to continuous improvement. Here, higher levels of government need to fund and support communities to do this work if they want to see outcomes.

In conclusion, the development and implementation of the Canadian Youth Homelessness Data Dashboard will necessarily rely on deep and ongoing partnerships and collaboration between researchers and the users of research and will inform how we think about data for all populations impacted by homelessness. Collaboratively, we explore some bigger questions about the role of knowledge and data collection and the values of different methodologies and approaches to measurement and evaluation. We also need to be realistic about what data can and cannot do. While data is important, we cannot oversell it as a magical solution to the challenges of working to support youth experiencing homelessness. Our desire for evidence-based decision making should not preclude the consideration of innovation in policy and practice for which the current state of evidence for effectiveness may not yet be robust.

Upcoming webinars:

June 28, 1-2:30 p.m. Understanding and Enumerating our Efforts to Prevent and End Youth Homelessness

July 12, 2-3:30 p.m. Research for Data Management and Measuring our Progress at the Systems Level in Preventing and Ending Youth Homelessness